Al Horford said the quiet part out loud.
With Joel Embiid sidelined, the Boston Celtics fell into the same trap they always have – they lost to a short-handed team because they played down to their competition. And Horford admitted that it affected their energy.
“As much as you want to say that it wasn’t a factor, I think it was,” Horford said. “And we have to be better. We have to understand that we have to be able to play with whatever happens, whatever variables.”
In November, it’s whatever. In January, it’s an annoying one-off. In April, it’s a concerning occurrence.
In May, it’s unacceptable.
After losing two gut-punching games to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, the Celtics closed the series with an emphatic five minutes. As Jaylen Brown would say, "the energy shifted," and it felt like things were trending up.
But on Monday night, the Celtics took one giant leap backward. With Embiid sidelined, James Harden dropped 45 points on their heads, embarrassing them on their own home floor and picking up a huge win for his Philadelphia 76ers.
“I don’t think our pressure and intensity was necessarily as high as it probably should have been to start,” said Jayson Tatum. “Throughout the course of the game, they hit shots, and they were in a good rhythm.”
Harden’s 45 points were supported by 26 from Tyrese Maxey, 18 from Tobias Harris, and a monster 17 from De’Anthony Melton off the bench, which included five three-pointers.
A severe lack of energy was on full display as Boston floundered on the defensive end, failing to find any answer for a fast-paced, confident Philadelphia offense–that was missing the soon-to-bee MVP.
“Honestly, we didn’t get stops all night long,” said Malcolm Brogdon. “I mean, that’s really the answer. We didn’t get the stops we needed. We played good initial defense and then would have some type of breakdown for a layup or an open three.”
Boston’s defensive fiasco was matched by a complete disaster on the offensive end.
One look at the box score will tell you that the Celtics shot 58.7% from the field and 38.5% from three-point range – top-tier numbers, but a closer look unveils a harsh reality.
In the second half, the Celtics–a team that averaged 42.6 threes per game–shot just 12. Their lack of threes wasn’t a result of an increase in paint touches but rather a harrowing outcome of their slow-paced, bleed-the-clock late-game mindset.
Rather than sustain their up-tempo, pass-heavy offensive style that works to perfection, the Celtics continuously choose to slow things down and completely chance their offensive style.
Even Brown was frustrated with the team’s choices post-game.
“No. I wanted to push the pace, but if we’re not running, you got to make sure you take care of the basketball,” Brown said when asked if he chose to slow things down in transition late in the game. “I could have made a play the transition there, but if I don’t have any outlets and nobody’s running, it’s a bad possession. So, you always want to make sure your guys are running with you. And right there, I just felt like I was running by myself.”
The Celtics have made the same errors over and over again. From Game 5 against the Hawks this year, to their three-game losing streak at the beginning of March in which they blew three-straight double-digit leads, to Game 6 (and 7) against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Nothing has changed, and no matter how many times Boston shines bright with their lockdown defense and high-powered offense, they always fall back into bad habits.
“I guess,” Tatum said when asked if the Celtics missed a big opportunity in Game 1. “S***, you just want to win every game you play, regardless of the circumstances. You just want to win. And we didn’t do enough to win. Every game you lose is a missed opportunity to get a win.”
It’s always the same. The same “we’ll be better” and “we didn’t do enough” comments after every loss in which the Celtics crumble to the highest degree.
In fairness to the players, there’s nothing else for them to say. There’s nothing they can say after a defeat such as this one because they’ve already said it all before.
All that’s left for them is to grow from their mistakes and not retreat back into them every chance they get.